(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump had a whirlwind weekend of diplomacy that restarted talks with China on trade and North Korea on nuclear weapons, but critics say he offered concessions with no concrete path for reaching deals with either country.
Trump’s historic stroll into North Korea with Kim Jong Un was a public-relations coup for the reclusive leader, providing the recognition on the world stage that he craves. U.S. officials were unable to articulate how Trump’s gambit would move Kim any closer to giving up his nuclear ambitions.
With his 2020 re-election campaign already kicking into high gear, Trump can point to gestures such as those made over the weekend as signs of diplomatic prowess -- even if the ultimate deal in either case remains out of reach and far from certain.
“Trump wants to make history,” Ian Bremmer, head of the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said of the impromptu Trump-Kim meeting, “even if it didn’t move the needle at all on denuclearization.”
On the agreement to restart stalled trade talks with China, Trump took fire from both Republican allies and Democratic critics who say his concession allowing U.S. companies to sell parts to Huawei Technologies threatens to help a company the U.S. has accused of spying.
Heard It Before
It’s also not clear what, if anything, the Chinese gave up to restart talks, they said.
“So far, nothing has happened as a result of the president’s diplomacy,” Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, said of the Trump’s dealings with North Korea. On China, he said Trump “indicated that there had been some progress on the trade deal, but of course we have heard that before.”
Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping Saturday on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan. In an echo of the move he pulled off at the previous G-20 meeting, in Buenos Aires in December, the talk yielded a pledge to restart trade negotiations in what’s been an escalating trade war.
A day later, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea for a hastily-arranged meeting with Kim in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas. The leaders agreed to resume discussions about denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
On Monday, Trump tweeted: “It was great to call on Chairman Kim of North Korea to have our very well covered meeting. Good things can happen for all!”
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said while the U.S. and North Korea didn’t reach agreement on how to move forward on Sunday, progress has been made during the past year -- and Trump’s move to get talks restarted will help.
“It’s good for North Korea; it’s good for America, good for the world,” Pompeo told reporters.
Trump deserves credit for breaking diplomatic protocols to gain Kim’s trust, said Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The question is, can an insecure dictator ever trust anyone to give up his key to survival?”
Denmark said the U.S. is actually in a worse position than a year ago because even though North Korea hasn’t conducted nuclear tests -- as Trump often points to as a sign of progress -- the regime presumably has continued to build its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates said Sunday while it’s good that Trump and Kim are talking, Trump’s approach appears to be more about optics than doing the hard work of diplomacy that yields results.
“Diplomacy is important, but diplomacy requires a strategy, a process, and competent leadership to deliver,” former Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement Monday. “Not one missile or nuclear weapon has been destroyed, not one inspector is on the ground. If anything, the situation has gotten worse.”
The decision to meet Kim in the DMZ helps Trump as an individual and the North Koreans as a government, but it doesn’t change the nuclear threat, Bremmer said. “It’s very clear that it was important to him to say ‘I’m the first sitting president that’s stepped on North Korean soil,’” Bremmer said.
Trade War Truce
European leaders were largely quiet on Trump’s latest outreach to Kim. Not only was it unexpected and removed from their immediate priorities, it also happened while most of them were preoccupied with more pressing affairs back home.
Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Giuseppe Conte were heading directly from the G-20 to what promises to be a dusk-to-dawn summit in Brussels on Monday to decide who to put forward to lead the European Union’s executive arm.
The U.S. and China, meanwhile, declared a truce in their trade war on Saturday after Trump’s meeting with Xi. Trump said he would hold off imposing an additional $300 billion in tariffs, and the world’s two largest economies agreed to resume negotiations.
Trump made the threat of more duties in May after he said China reneged on language that had previously been negotiated. It wasn’t clear what concessions Xi offered to get talks restarted. Trump also said he would allow U.S. companies to resume sales to Huawei, China’s largest telecommunications equipment maker, drawing opposition from critics worried about U.S. spying.
White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said Trump isn’t offering “general amnesty” to Huawei to get talks restarted, but Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida predicted that if Trump has bargained away restrictions on Huawei, Congress would reinstate them through legislation.
Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the Republican conference chairman, said he’s concerned that the president isn’t ruling out Huawei operating in the U.S. as part of negotiations with China.
“I know the president is a deal-maker,” Barrasso said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “To me, Huawei in the United States would be like a Trojan horse ready to steal more information from us.”
(Updates to add Biden’s comments in 16th paragraph.)
--With assistance from Anders Melin, Ben Sills, Hailey Waller and Alyza Sebenius.
To contact the reporters on this story: Craig Gordon in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Mark Niquette in Columbus at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sara Forden at firstname.lastname@example.org, Justin Blum, Bill Faries
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.